Saturday, February 27, 2016

Colvin and Blake. 2016-02-27

I had set out to add four peaks to my February Grid but the ol' bod suggested I keep it real. Something was amiss and my willing spirit had to battle reluctant flesh all morning long. After C&B, I turned towards Elk Pass and then my spirit capitulated as well; the whole package pivoted back to the Lake Road. There would be no 8.5 hour tour of CBND today. Nevertheless it still made for a better day than sitting at home. Six hours, gate-to-gate, plus I got to meet three new people. Hello Sporty Spice, Little Miss Brave, and sati!

I left home at 5:00 AM and was treated to a beautiful sunrise over the Green Mountains. Some folks from MOAC planned a moonlit walk up the auto-road to Whiteface's summit to watch sunrise. I think they got their money's worth!

I rolled into the Ausable Club's parking area shortly after 7:00 AM. It was a crisp morning (-11 C/ 12 F) under a clear blue sky. I signed it at 7:37 AM and optimistically indicated Colvin, Blake, Nippletop and Dial.

The Lake Road was paved in ice. I stopped at the Leach trail junction to put on Trail Crampons. A group of three, headed for Dial and Nippletop, did the same. Sweating had begun on cue and I stripped down a single baselayer.

The ice was very hard. My spikes filled the air with the din of a rock-crusher. No one would have a problem sneaking up behind me because I could hardly hear myself think.

The recent heavy rain had caused brooks and rivers to overflow their banks. I passed a section of road that looked like a skating rink. Later, on the trail, I'd see "blowouts" where water emerged from the icy surface and deposited a long stream of frozen earth.

Trail "blowout".
I turned into the woods at the Gill Brook Cutoff and the snowcrete effectively silenced the rock-crushers. Two of the three campsites along Gill Brook were occupied. I could hear stirring from the cluster of tents at the second site. I passed a group of four hikers taking pictures; I'd meet then again later.

I reached the Elk Pass junction and turned right to Colvin. The first icy patch was a little tricky in Trail Crampons but, fortunately, it proved to be the worst of the lot. Before ascending too far, I found a thick clump of firs and promptly deposited four pounds of ballast in the woods (I hid my snowshoes).

I felt something was "off" today. I didn't feel strong and had to keep adjusting my pace to avoid becoming winded. I thought my pace was at least as good as last month's trip yet I felt I was working harder. (Jan/Feb: 48m/42m)

Moments after arriving on Colvin, low clouds rushed in from the south and obscured the higher summits. It turned into a blustery snow squall with a biting wind and reduced visibility. I donned my hard-shell, took a long swig of water, stuffed my camera and a Clif bar into my pockets, then proceeded a few yards down the trail to hide my pack.

Snow squall passing through.
Unencumbered by paraphernalia, I felt light and agile. The wind-chill was noticeable and I battened down my hard-shell. For a moment I considered returning to retrieve overmitts but I figured a bit more effort would rewarm my hands (it did). I think I finally got the hang of the two ladders and can now descend facing forward like on a staircase. Practice makes perfect!

Once again, the ascent of Blake felt harder than it had in January despite the fact my time was the same (25m). I tagged the summit, wandered out into the snowy "clearing", discovered its views weren't any better, then returned to the col. The steep sections, now thoroughly paved in ice and snow, were a breeze to descend.

I returned to Colvin in about the same time I had in January (Jan/Feb: 35m/32m) but, even without a pack, it felt harder than it should have. I passed the four hikers I met earlier. When asked how were the views from Blake I sensed it was wry inquiry so I replied with a smile "Oh, you know, the usual."

I collected my pack, paused on Colvin for one last view, then down-climbed the Colvin Step. The crack is now filled with ice and snow thereby providing better footing for spikes. The ladder is not visible.

All clear on Nippletop.
About three-quarters of the way down, a hiker wearing crampons inquired if my Trail Crampons were adequate. She said I looked familiar and asked if "I was on the forum". The inquiry led to an exchange of real and forum names. Sporty Spice said she donned crampons at the first gnarly patch of ice but found they were overkill afterwards. I confirmed the first patch was the most challenging and the rest of route to Blake was achievable in Trail Crampons. We wished one another a great day and went our separate ways.

I retrieved my snowshoes and descended to the Elk Pass junction. After a bit of mental see-sawing, I tipped in favor of continuing to Nippletop. One small step at a time will get the job done. Less than five minutes into the decision, I stopped in my tracks. The muscles in my legs, normally stoic, grumbled. As sudden and unwelcome as the snow squall earlier, a gloomy mood clouded my mind. I decided this was definitely an off-day and it was best to end it on happy note. I turned around and began an easy-breezy descent to the Lake Road.

While downwind of the campsites, I caught a whiff of "humans". The cold clear air amplified the collective odor of campers. Nothing nasty but distinctively "not woodsy". I think "sleeping bag funk" would describe it best.

I remained on the Gill Brook trail to get the best view of the brook and its numerous icy cascades and pools. I greeted a pair of hikers and met Little Miss Brave and her companion Sati, friends of Crepuscular. They were heading to Nippletop and that led to a brief discussion of the day's trail conditions. They were using Trail Crampons and I said they probably wouldn't have too much difficulty ascending but the descent might require some care. I wished them well and we parted company.

I followed the "Scenic" option along Gill Brook and it led to the brook's flooded and frozen edge. There were an endless variety of natural ice sculptures. Several of the ice formations reminded me of the rippled pillars and mounds found deep in caves. The sky was blue and clear and I felt a touch of regret for cutting the trip short. Nevertheless, I knew it was for the better. I'd return on a day when body and mind worked as a team.

Flooding on Gill Brook trail.
The Lake Road remained as tough as boilerplate although the temperature was now a balmy -1 C/ 30 F. A half-hour's march brought me back to the AMR gate, six hours from departure. I only covered half of my intended itinerary but a wise man once said "Don't be greedy!"


See all photos.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Cascade and Porter. 2016-02-13

The weather forecast for the weekend predicted bitterly cold summit temperatures with windchills dipping below -45 C (-50 F). I had not hiked in three weeks and was itching to stretch my legs. I picked Cascade and Porter because:
  1. I was pressed for time; I had to be back home by 5:45 PM.
  2. They were on my February Grid list.
  3. Cascade offered a bit of exposure to sample the arctic weather.
Saturday morning's commute was complicated by slippery roads in Quebec. The combination of an inch or two of overnight snowfall, bitter cold, strong crosswinds, and drifting snow made my pre-dawn drive less than leisurely. In contrast, I-87 was bone-dry and the surrounding fields and forests were devoid of snow.

I arrived at 8:05 AM and promptly began the ritual of preparing for hiking on a frigid winter's day. My car's thermometer indicated -22.5 C (-8.5 F). The forecast called for brisk winds and a cooling trend. It was an excellent opportunity to try a few new things with clothing and gear.

Although I've used a hydration system on all my winter hikes, I opted for an insulated bottle of water. Ultimately, I drank none of it! Nor did I eat anything. For some reason I felt neither thirst nor hunger.

I wore vapor-barrier (VB) gloves to keep my mittens dry. It worked very well because my cold-sensitive hands didn't become rigid claws in the bitter cold.

My experiment with VB socks was less successful. To prevent the plastic bags from riding down my feet, and scrunching up around my toes, I taped them in place. At the end of the hike, I discovered the bags hadn't slipped but my toes punched through and created gaping holes. At least it explained why my toes felt nippy while standing around.

Last but not least was my cold-sensitive nose. I have a neoprene facemask but it's overkill below treeline. In a pinch, I cut holes in a fleece stuff sack and, ta-dah, made an old-fashioned "ski mask". In practice, the garish green mask made me look like a luchador (just call me "Cabeza Verde"). It needs improvement because the end of my schnozz developed a touch of frostnip.

I signed in at 8:30 AM and stopped a mere ten minutes later to remove my mid-layer. I was now down to a thin baselayer and a wind-shirt. Nevertheless, true to form, I continued to perspire heavily. It condensed and froze as "snow" on the surface of the highly-breathable wind-shirt. Maybe I need a VB shirt?

I opted to use Trail Crampons and left my snowshoes in the car. The paucity of snow this winter merits calling the situation a "drought". There's far less than eight inches of snow at the start and maybe only that much above 3900 feet. The trail had a thin layer of snow over a base of ice. The initial stretch had many rocks poking through the base.

Around 3300 feet I sensed a drop in temperature and my nose felt a bit stiff. This is a warning sign that my schnozz is at risk of frostbite. I paused to don my Cabeza Verde mask. At that moment, I met two descending hikers also wearing masks. I addressed them as "Mexican wrestlers" and got a chuckle. They reported Cascade's summit was bitterly cold and they spent only enough time to get photos.

When I put on my luchador mask, I also removed my eyeglasses. Despite an application of Cat Crap, they eventually fogged to the point of opaqueness. Fortunately, I can see well enough to hike without them, especially on a smooth snowy trail on a bright sunny day.

The trail to Porter was windswept and untracked. The trail conditions were perfect for spikes. On Porter's summit, my camera balked at the cold and reported "Charge battery". I jammed a smidgen of Kleenex between the battery and its door to exert more pressure and create better electrical contact. That worked to allow for a few photos but then it gave me the "Battery Aziz" message again. My chest pocket was obviously too cold so I stuffed the camera into my pants pocket and dashed back to the trail junction.

Luchador "Cabeza Verde" visits Porter.
Cascade from Porter.
Along the way I took the side-trail to the lookout over Railroad Notch. It was my eight visit to Porter but the first time I've bothered to pause at this lookout! The veil of clouds tried but failed to obscure the frozen ponds in Little Meadows. It might have made for a good photo if my camera battery wasn't in cryo-sleep.

I zipped past the trail-junction and stopped at the base of Cascade's bare summit. It was time to put on my spacesuit. While extracting it from my pack, two hikers passed me. One was accompanied by his dog. The pooch wore booties and didn't seem to mind the cold. The second hiker paused to inquire if I'd mind taking his photo when I arrived on the summit. I hesitated then agreed. The source of my hesitation would soon reveal itself.

I donned a pair of insulated pants. The side-zippers spare you the inconvenience of removing footwear. However, when fully unzipped, the spatchcocked pants becomes a "clothing puzzle". It takes more than one attempt before this unfamiliar item goes on correctly! My windshirt was damp so I stripped it off and replaced it with the mid-layer I had removed earlier. Knowing it would be board-stiff upon my return, I rolled it up and stuffed it into my pack. Love nor money would get me back into that frozen jacket.

For the first time ever, I wore my fully-baffled down jacket. It was like wearing a sleeping bag. Its hood muffled external sounds like a pillow wrapped around one's head. Goggles and a neoprene facemask completed the astronaut costume. I left my poles and pack and strolled up to the summit.

The hiker and his dog were already descending. The photo-requesting hiker was seated in the lee of a rock. He wore half-gloves and his exposed, cherry-red fingers held a smartphone. I thought this might happen. There was no way I was going to bare flesh to operate a touchscreen. I looked at him and shouted through my facemask "You want me to expose my fingers in this cold?" He paused, looked at his own suffering hands, then apologized and wished me well. I didn't feel good about it but I was unwilling to extract a damp hand out of a plastic glove and expose it to a windchill of -40 F. He'd have to settle for a selfie.

Astronaut on Cascade.
Aside from the stinging wind that nipped at my nostrils, and seeped in through the filtered edges of my goggles, I was immune to the cold. A gust or two would occasionally jostle me but that was part of the experience I sought. I got my money's worth and I was happy.

The wind tested my defenses and found a breach near my left temple. I adjusted my hood and facemask to seal the draughts. I thought about what I'd do differently if I had to hike for an hour or more in these conditions. Knowing how I perspire during exertion, there's no way I could continue to wear this duvet of a jacket. I'd have to wear a lighter synthetic jacket that I normally use in winter.

The nipping at my nostrils fed my paranoia about frostbite. Perhaps I need a facemask with a "walrus snout" to provide better protection (Outdoor Research's Gorilla Balaclava). Anyway, it was all academic because these conditions usually keep me below treeline.

-25 C/-13F + 35 mph wind gusts = Brrr!
I spent at least 15 minutes ambling around the summit, appreciating the arctic conditions and whatever scenery materialized through the clouds. Big Slide's silhouette was recognizable in the mist but not much else was visible beyond it. My camera had returned to life long enough to take a few photos before the cold put back into deep sleep.

Howard was leading a MOAC trip on nearby Pitchoff so I took a few photos of it in hope of spotting his group. After I had seen all there was to see, I began to make my way down to my pack. Along the way I met a lone hiker and asked her if she could take my photo. I assured her it had a shutter button! She tried but was unable because the camera was still too cold.

As expected, separated from my warmth, my windshirt had turned into a frozen ball. I removed my down jacket and replaced it with a hardshell. I stuffed it, the pants, goggles, and facemask into my pack, shouldered it, and began a fast descent to the trail-head. I probably should've put on my luchador mask but I felt my pace would generate enough heat. I was mistaken.

I passed at least six groups of hikers ranging from 4 to 12 people in size. One of the hikers, I'll assume she was a group leader, commented that I had developed a white spot on my nose about a centimeter in size. I stopped immediately, thanked her for bringing it to my attention, and explained "It has a habit of doing that!"  I donned my neoprene facemask because it covers my nose better than my homemade ski-mask. With only my eyes visble between my black hat and facemask, I looked like a ninja. If you were one of the 50+ hikers ascending Cascade on Saturday, I was the masked man careening down the trail.

In addition to seeing many hikers, I also saw two enormous piles of dog feces. I don't care the two dogs I saw were unleashed. That's between the owners and rangers they meet. I do care about the "brown klister" they leave on the trail. A misstep might collect an unwanted memento of the trip. All I ask is that dog owners clean up after their pets; at the very least, kick that $hit into the woods.

I signed out at 11:40 AM and added a "Clean up after your dog!" note in the margin of the logbook. It's likely to go unheeded but at least the message is out; dog poo on the untrail is unappreciated. I took a photo of the logbook page (as is my custom now) and counted ten groups had signed in, representing over 55 people. Clearly the bitter cold hadn't diminished the lure of hiking Cascade.

Stay frosty!
I changed into dry clothes, bagged what I wore on the trail, spread out damp jackets to dry in the car, stowed my gear, and called my wife to report I was safe and sound. I made one last trip to the trunk when someone addressed me. I looked up and didn't recognize the masked individual but he spoke like he knew me. I finally recognized his voice and it was John (MtnManJohn). I greeted him and we discussed the trail conditions. He was also heading up for a "gear testing" hike in the arctic conditions. Like a tag team match, one luchador tagged the other and "Hombre de la montaƱa" was off into the ring!


See all photos.


Time: 3h 10m
Distance: 5.7 miles
Ascent: 2350 feet